It seems there are innumerable different ways to spin a Santa Claus movie. The story of Jolly Old Saint Nick has been told straight up (Santa Clause Is Coming To Town), been grounded in courtroom realism (Miracle on 34th Street), been rehashed into holiday hybrid (The Nightmare Before Christmas), been R-rated (Bad Santa), and been turned into boardroom pun (The Santa Clause, get it?). What can Arthur Christmas, an animated “the night before…” globetrot with the big guy’s klutzy but loveable son Arthur, have that’s new and different? It turns out, just enough.
On Christmas Eve, Operation Christmas commences with an army of ninja-quick elves lowered from a stealth, Enterprise-looking airship onto sleepy gentile neighborhoods. Commanding the vessel is Santa’s oldest son Steve Claus, a militaristic head-honcho and next in line to wear the hat. Christmas has been given a twenty-first century boost with technological gizmos and gadgets (naughty and nice body scanners, for instance) and digitized information (elves sit at the North Pole watching the progress of gift delivery like NASA guiding a mission to Mars). Santa himself is now merely a figurehead, a brand name, a face fronting an empire run with robotic efficiency, but depersonalized detachment.
Sure, the gifts get delivered faster than ever before—but where’s the sleigh, the rain deer, the ho-ho-ho’s? Where’s the heart? Gleefully sitting in the basement of the North Pole’s underground command post is where; Arthur Claus is the letter handler, spending his days reading Christmas wishes and writing replies to kids worldwide. He’s got an innocent’s mirth and a black sheep’s clumsiness yet is so dedicated to his job that he remembers every child and every letter to the word. When an ambivalent little Brit named Gwen gets forgotten during the night’s speedy hullabaloo, Arthur along with his retired grandfather (called Grandsanta) and a gift wrapping virtuoso elf named Bryony bust out the old sleigh—now considered a relic—in order to get the tot her bicycle before sunrise.
Interestingly, most other films of this sort would choose to make Gwen somehow unique, pitiable even, worthy of the effort—maybe an orphan or a deployed troop’s lonely daughter. In Arthur Christmas, the point is that she’s perfectly average, a stand-in for all kid kind. Because Arthur’s a fervent believer in that pesky old cliché—you know, “the spirit of Christmas”—no child can be overlooked. His holiday optimism is assuredly wholesome and sweet, and will probably knock some sense into his feckless pap and glory-hogging brother as well.
Part of me understands that Christmas movies are expected to have that kind of humdrum conflict and some very sappy messages. And yet, the curmudgeon in me still wishes the stakes were a little higher. So what if the bike never makes it under the tree? Gwen’s parents will buy her one anyway and stamp Santa’s name on it. An orphan doesn’t get that kind of insurance claim (hence the sympathy gimmicks); the present would have importance beyond Arthur’s devotion. Yet, Arthur Christmas has charming enough characters and inventive enough ideas—especially the one about Christmas becoming so corporatized and technology reliant that even Santa has grown impersonal—to overcome its genre predictability and a lack of the compelling drama we’ve come to expect from animated films since the emergence of Pixar’s gold standard.I guess it’s silly of me to criticize a Christmas movie for being too, I don’t know, Christmassy. But I wasn’t held throughout by the film’s festive weightlessness. During certain stretches, my eyes began to droop. Of course, I’d be a real Grinch if I didn’t have fun watching sleighs fly faster than the speed of sound, elves wrap presents while suspended in air, and a coot Grandsanta rave about the good old days, when he didn’t need GPS navigation—just magic. Arthur Christmas delivers just enough of it, gift-wrapped and on time.